The announcement Thursday of a surprise gift to the USC/Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center was straight out of a Frank Capra movie.
Our unassuming hero performs a good deed in the natural course of events and is rewarded many years later.
The story opened some 15 years ago, when Dr. Don Feinstein, a USC professor of medicine and an expert in blood disorders, met a patient by the name of Larry Kelly.
Kelly’s illness had mystified other physicians. Feinstein, who sees many complex cases, approached this patient as he did any other.
“You do a good history. You do a good physical. You do good laboratory work,” he said. “It’s a matter of being thorough.” Once the right diagnosis was made and treatment started, the patient improved, literally, overnight. It was all in a day’s work.
So Feinstein was dumbfounded to hear in late August that the long-ago care he had delivered had moved a close friend of Kelly’s to leave USC/Norris’ hematology division a bequest: $60 million, the largest gift ever to the cancer center and the sixth-largest to USC.
La Jolla philanthropist Jane Anne Nohl, who died in July at 89, had been “truly overwhelmed” by his recovery, Kelly said.
Feinstein never met Nohl, though he’s learned a lot about her from Kelly since he learned of the bequest.
She was a woman of intense loyalty and quiet kindnesses.
Born the only child of a prominent Sacramento family, Nohl and her husband made their fortunes in investments and in Southern California real estate.
Nohl and her husband, Louis, knew Kelly socially. When Louis died in 1987, Nohl asked Kelly, who runs Lawrence Kelly & Associates, a Pasadena-based money management firm, to become her financial trustee.
Around 1990, Kelly, who is now 65, fell ill due to what turned out to be a defect in one part of his immune system. The defect, known as a common variable immune deficiency, left him less able to fight off infections, Kelly said.
As its name implies, it is not all that rare, but its effects vary widely, which complicates diagnosis. The onset of symptoms can occur, for example, from childhood through middle age, which was when Kelly fell ill. Nohl became deeply concerned.
“Dr. Feinstein saved my life,” Kelly said. “I was going down quickly, and then I literally awoke like Rip Van Winkle.”
Nohl decided then to leave a significant gift for research to the USC department of the doctor who had cured her friend.
Kelly has continued to see Feinstein regularly for immunoglobulin infusions that have restored his health, and the two men have become friends. But ever the discreet money manager, Kelly never mentioned Nohl’s bequest to the doctor.
Until her death. “I just picked the phone up and said, ‘I’ve got a little surprise for you,’ ” Kelly said. “He about fell over.”
Gifts of this magnitude to an academic institute that the donor did not attend are unusual, Kelly said.
About 95% of gifts go to an alma mater, Kelly added. “But this woman did what she wanted, believe me.”
Nohl, Kelly said, had a keen sense of humor and a wide social circle. For years, she was a fixture at such parties as La Jolla’s annual “Trash Bash” -- a beach buffet that brought together year-round “townies” and visiting “trash,” the teasing nickname for those who merely summered there. But she was just as quick, though more discreet, with a kindness, Kelly said. If a friend was struggling to pay a child’s college bills, she’d pull the young student aside and tell him to send the bill to her.
She also wanted to be sure the charitable causes she supported put her donations to the best use.
Following her instructions, Kelly asked Feinstein to draw up a plan for the gift. The professor was faced with an enviable challenge: how to spend $60 million.
Nohl’s gift will allow the renamed Jane Anne Nohl Division of Hematology and Center for the Study of Blood Diseases to almost double its staff of 10 research professors. It will endow three chairs -- named for Nohl, Kelly and Kelly’s wife Janice -- to attract top scholars and open up four new slots for junior faculty. It will establish two post-doctoral research fellowships and endow a research fund.
It will also ensure permanent funding for a physician assistant to serve as an always-familiar presence to patients who can feel lost going from specialist to specialist. That position will be named for Maria Gonzalez, who cared for an increasingly frail Nohl in the last years of her life, allowing her to stay in her La Jolla beach home.
Feinstein, who at 75 technically “retired” in July but still works six days a week, drew a Capra-esque lesson from the unexpected windfall.
“Things like this can happen if you take good care of your patients,” he said.